GEORGETOWN, Pa. - Alice Ann Whitehill calls herself an ordinary farmer's wife; the Chester native has been married to Georgetown farmer Earl Whitehill for nearly 20 years.
Her hobbies are, for the most part, those that occupy the free time of many rural women, including folk music, knitting, canning and quilting.
Then there are her more unique hobbies.
An ardent historian, Whitehill participates in living history programs depicting Civil War-era life at Gettysburg National Park and presents programs on folk music to civic groups.
FORD'S THEATRE AND THE HOUSE WHERE LINCOLN DIED
She also is a paranormal investigator who uses her mountain dulcimer and Civil War period music to make contact with spirits.
"People have different thoughts and beliefs (about the afterlife)," Whitehill said. "I don't want to appear eccentric; I try to live a normal life, I do 'old lady' things - crochet, quilt, embroider."
Whitehill said she, and many members of her family, have a sensitivity to spirits, which she described as partially genetic and partially an attitude of open-mindedness. She has been accompanied on investigations by both of her children and her mother and believes her sister may have had a previous life as one of the victims of the Titanic disaster.
"We have been fascinated since we were children with the sinking of the Titanic," she said, "long before it was trendy. I would love to go to Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada), where so many of (the Titanic victims) are buried."
She has been playing music for approximately 50 years, but realized the connection between music and spirits around 15 years ago, during her first paranormal experience in what was once Sprucevale, Ohio, near East Liverpool. She was visiting the "ghost town" of Sprucevale, built to service the Sandy and Beaver Canal, which failed in 1852. Sprucevale was abandoned by 1870. It is now part of Beaver Creek State Park.
Whitehill volunteers at the pioneer village near the Sprucevale site, drawn by her interest in history. She said she was playing her dulcimer near the Sprucevale mill when she saw a ghostly figure that appeared to be dancing to the music.
"There is a connection between the spirits of the past and the music of the past," Whitehill said. "To make contact, it is the music. All people have a connection to the music of their youth. When I was a teenager, I listened to the music of the '60s, it was what I grew up with. If I go somewhere and hear it, it is familiar to me, and I'm drawn to it. For some older people, it's the music of the '50s. When I play the music of the Civil War era, it is familiar to the spirits of that time. They are drawn to it also."
Whitehill's investigation led her to believe the spirit was that of Esther Hale, whose sweetheart died in the Civil War before the two could be married. She also believes Esther's child, born out of wedlock and who later drowned as a young boy, also haunts the area around the mill.
"If you believe human beings have souls, then you believe something happens to that soul after we die," said Whitehill. "Spirits may still be around for one reason or another."
She often uses digital voice recorders and digital cameras to record her experiences. During an investigation, she usually plays music while those accompanying her will ask questions in the hopes a ghostly answer will be audible when the recording is played back. She also uses digital photography to record the presence of "anomalies," or flaws in photographs that can't be explained by normal means, such as dust in the air, sunlight or smudges on a camera lens.
Whitehill, who has been a speaker at several paranormal conferences, also has had several encounters in Gettysburg, especially around Little Roundtop and the Virginia Memorial.
One evening, while playing her dulcimer near the memorial, she felt the left side of her neck and left shoulder become cold. Witnesses professed to have seen a light pass Whitehill's shoulder. In a videotape, a ball of light directly in front of Whitehill moves from the right to the left, passing her on the left side.
"I was freezing cold for more than an hour," she said. "It was an awesome experience."
Whitehill, who has been featured in a KDKA-TV documentary, said she often plays Civil War music at Little Roundtop and the Devil's Den area.
"I tell them, 'I'm Alice, and I've come to play for you. I've played for you before,'" she said. "And you can hear them (on the recording) saying, 'Alice, Alice, Alice.' It's like they remember me and are telling each other to come and listen."
At other times, Whitehill said she has recorded Civil War spirits answering the question "Who are you?"
"They sound just like they are calling roll," she said, adding she has matched names to unit rolls.
One name she hasn't been able to find is that of Matthew Gideon, whom she believes to have been from the Carolinas.
"Some day, I will find him," she said.
Whitehill said she hoped her music comforted those restless spirits lingering at Gettysburg.
"With a lot of them in Gettysburg, they are asking for help," she said. "It's heartbreaking, that these people who have been dead for almost 150 years are still asking for help. If they ask for help, I think that you can send them on. So many of them were still children, really. Legally, you had to be 18, but a lot of them lied about their age, and some of them were as young as 12. It's just awful."
She also has played at the Unknown Plot at Johnstown, Pa., in which there are 800 unidentified men, women and children, all victims of the Johnstown Flood, buried.
"There are just little white stones (marking the graves)," she said. "Not even a number. I took a stool, sat down and played 'Brahm's Lullaby' for the babies. One of the men there came forward and said he heard this female voice say, 'aw, listen.'" She paused, visibly moved. "I still get emotional over that."
Whitehill's interest in history leads her to search for documentation that can confirm or refute the possibility of a haunting, and she discounts "ghost stories" that have no historical grounding.
"Before I write about (a paranormal investigation), I want some proof these people existed," she said. "There's a story that, if you park a pickup on the (Pennsylvania/West Virginia) state line on Old (Route) 22 at midnight and honk three times, a ghost woman will appear and get into your truck. Why the state line? Why a pickup truck? Who is this woman? Why is she waiting there? I think it's an urban legend."
She also casts a wary eye on the television programs and "haunted destination" tourism.
"Tourism is a big industry," she said. "In Gettysburg, 20 years ago, there were very few ghost tours. Now, they're all over the place. A lot of it is theatrical, to make money. A lot of these programs on cable TV, I don't agree with a lot of the things they do, when they have these big groups of people running around and screaming. It's to add to the excitement of the TV show."
Whitehill said, although she was frightened by her experiences when she first began her investigations, she now believes spirits have no power to harm the living. However, there are some places she has no interest in investigating, and the Moundsville (W.Va.) Penitentiary is one of those places.
"There are a lot of nasty things there," she said.
On a visit to the penitentiary to take part in a historical tour, Whitehill had an encounter with a spirit in the North Yard, an exercise yard for the "worst of the worst," near the Wagon Gate. Whitehill, who was using a cane, had fallen behind the group when her cane was propelled out of her hand, landing 20 feet away.
"It was just as if someone had walked up behind me and kicked my cane," she said. "I just said, 'I'm not frightened of you, you're messing with the wrong person' and hobbled over and picked up my cane."
Whitehill has been invited to accompany several paranormal investigation groups to the penitentiary.
"I told them I would think about it," she said. "That was several years ago. I'm still thinking about it."
Whitehill and her husband are members of the Frankfort Springs (Pa.) Grange, Appalachian Folk Music Club and the Friends of Beaver Creek State Park. She is a member of the International Ghost Hunters Society.
Her experiments in contacting spirits through music are recounted in her 2002 book, "In Tune With Spirits," available locally at River Island Collectibles in Chester.
A second book, "Haunted History of the Tri-State Area," will be available in October and include stories of hauntings from Moundsville to Johnstown to Conneaut Lake.
She also is available to give folk music presentations to area organizations and clubs.
(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)